I have to admit, I have no idea whether the film version of A Prairie Home Companion is a good movie or not. I can tell you that it’s the cinematic equivalent of a big dish of Powder Milk Biscuits, awash in maple syrup. This won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you’re looking for entertainment that’s homespun to within an inch of its life, this thing does quite nicely.
An extension of Garrison Keillor’s weekly radio show of the same name, the movie is about the show’s end, oddly enough. We open at the WLT radio station in St. Paul, Minn., which is due to be closed after being bought up by a Texas conglomerate. Keillor (“GK” to his fellow performers) presides over the final broadcast of his live radio program in much the same manner as he does each week, telling stories and introducing a bunch of folk-country musical acts to sing the show down.
Among these are Jearlyn Steele and Robin and Linda Williams, regulars on Keillor’s actual program. They play second fiddle, though, to a large and starry ensemble cast impersonating the radio show’s personalities. The real-life a cappella vocal quintet known as The Johnson Girls here becomes two sisters named Yolanda and Rhonda (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin) who endlessly rehash their previous history as a performing family. Other familiar characters include the singing-cowboy duo Dusty and Lefty (John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson), as well as Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), a remarkably unobservant security guard at WLT who’s a parody of a typical hard-boiled radio private eye. These Midwesterners have so little irony about them, they come off like the folkies in Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind.
Director Robert Altman is in autopilot mode here, letting the cameras roll while the characters hang out in the controlled chaos behind the scenes, which includes a bizarre subplot with Virginia Madsen as a white-coated angel of death who floats around WLT’s theater and gently ushers a couple of characters into the next world. She also takes time out to ask GK to explain a joke he told about two penguins.
The characters here are only moderately engaging, and the actors tend to be serviceable in their portrayals, though Kline once again distinguishes himself with some terrific clowning and Keillor has a memorable bit when he blithely rambles on into the mike about duct tape to cover for a backstage snafu. The actors are used much better onstage — almost everyone in the cast sings at some point. Harrelson and Reilly make an agreeable comic duo, and their good cheer puts over the groan-worthy material in a song appropriately entitled “Bad Jokes.” Their humorous numbers are a useful counterweight to the sentimental “Goodbye to My Mama” and “Gold Watch & Chain,” both featuring Tomlin and Streep, who’s in particularly fine voice.
As Yolanda’s sullen teen daughter Lola, Lindsay Lohan gets her turn onstage, too, singing an impromptu, jangled-nerves version of “Frankie & Johnny,” but that isn’t nearly as spectacular as Lola’s tearful, outraged offstage rant directed at GK himself in response to his apparent lack of feeling for a musician who has passed away in his dressing room. Did you forget that Lohan could act? Couldn’t really blame you. Her little turn is a mildly pleasant surprise, which is altogether typical of what A Prairie Home Companion, a movie that pretty much defines “cozy,” offers up.
A Prairie Home Companion
Starring Garrison Keillor and Meryl Streep. Directed by Robert Altman. Written by Garrison Keillor and Ken LaZebnik, based on Keillor’s radio program. Rated PG-13.